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Alberto’s Rain May Do More Good Than Harm

June 14, 2006

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) _ After splashing ashore in Florida without its once-feared punch, the remnants of the first named storm of the season churned through the Southeast early Wednesday, bringing much-needed rain and offering a tune-up for officials readying for the long hurricane season.

By early Wednesday morning, Alberto had weakened from a tropical storm to a tropical depression over South Carolina and all tropical storm warnings were discontinued, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center said. The storm was expected to lose all tropical characteristics later in the day, though it was possible the storm could strengthen again.

After last year’s 28 named storms and record 15 hurricanes, Tropical Storm Alberto caused a brief scare and prompted a call for more than 20,000 people to evacuate Florida’s Gulf Coast. But no serious injuries or deaths were reported.

Forecasters said the center of circulation would track into the Carolinas from Georgia by Wednesday, pushing nasty weather ahead of it. Storm winds gusting over 40 mph began moving into South Carolina late Tuesday night, knocking down trees and power lines in three counties.

At 5 a.m. EDT, Alberto had maximum sustained winds near 35 mph and was moving northeast near 21 mph, forecasters said. The center of the tropical depression was located about 35 miles south-southwest of Columbia, S.C. A tropical storm has top sustained winds of at least 39 mph.

Two to four inches of rain were forecast for the Carolinas and parts of Virginia, with isolated heavier rains along the coast. At least six small tornadoes were reported in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, including one that injured one person and damaged homes and cars.

Alberto’s winds were about 50 mph when it came ashore near Adams Beach, Fla., still strong enough to be a tropical storm, but well below even a Category I hurricane’s 74-mph threshold.

If Alberto had struck as a hurricane, it would be have been an alarming start to the season, which began June 1. No hurricane has hit the United States this early in the hurricane season in 40 years.

Instead, Alberto’s rainfall may turn out to be a blessing for Florida’s efforts to battle wildfires and for farmers in Georgia who were worried about drought.

``It’s definitely a million-dollar rain,″ said Joe McManus, a marketing specialist with the Georgia Farm Bureau in Macon. ``It could save some cotton and peanut fields.″

Officials said the storm also gave them real-world practice on the lessons learned from the slow response to some of last year’s storms. Hurricane specialists said they ran into a few computer glitches but nothing that couldn’t be fixed by the next storm.

``It was a nice tune-up, a nice warm-up,″ said hurricane specialist Richard Pasch. Florida’s Emergency Management spokesman Mike Stone put it another way: ``You can train all you want, but nothing beats the real deal.″

In Crystal River, Fla., water was thigh-high in the heart of the town. Residents were forced to sandbag homes and businesses, but many people seemed to accept flooding as part of coastal life _ and sighed with relief that it wasn’t worse.

The only road in and out of Cedar Key for the island’s 940 residents was briefly closed because of flooding. But Cedar Key City Commissioner Pat O’Neal said, ``We dodged a bullet.″

``I think overall it could have been worse. We would have evacuated if there was a serious storm, but this wasn’t,″ said Cedar Key resident Leslie Sturmer.

To farmer Orson Adams, 65, Alberto’s rains came as a relief. He hoped it would help germinate the cotton seeds he planted three to four weeks ago in Douglas, Ga.

``This is a welcomed rain,″ he said. ``We don’t need a flood. What we’ve gotten has been slow and it’s going into the soil. We’ve got a chance now to survive.″

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Associated Press writers Mitch Stacy in Cedar Key, Fla.; Bruce Smith in Charleston, S.C.; Erin Gartner in Raleigh, N.C.; and Elliott Minor in Albany, Ga. contributed to this report.

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On the Net:

National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov

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